ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JANET HAMOUS
In the blink of an eye, Shirley Hull Davis’s deft hands transform the glob of chocolate icing in the decorating bag into two cute hugging bears.
Davis’s natural artistic ability, expert training and more than 30 years cake-decorating experience come together to make cake decorating look easy.
Although Davis didn’t know it at the time, her career in cake decorating began when she was in grade school.
“My mother would buy the tubes of icing and I would decorate the family’s birthday cakes,” she said. “Then one time I went to the fair and I bought a kit. It had four tips, an eight inch bag and a little instruction book about how to make the simplest flowers and borders.
“With that I continued to make cakes for the family and friends. I made my first wedding cake with that kit and that little 8-inch bag. I laugh about how many times I must have filled that tiny bag.”
As she grew up, Davis continued to decorate cakes, and word of her skills spread.
“I was doing cakes at home, and I got to have quite a bit of clientele. People would see a cake at a party, and they would call me and want a cake,” she said.
Then Davis’s husband was transferred to Des Moines, Iowa.
“I lost all my customers. So I decided I would go to an in-store bakery. I looked for a bakery where the decorating was pitiful that I felt I could at least be that good,” she said, laughing.
Davis applied at the worst bakery she could find and was hired.
“The boss was not very happy that I was there,” she said. “He was hoping they would hire an already experienced bakery decorator.”
A bakery decorator is different than a home cake decorator, she said.
“Home decorators have all the time in the world to spend on a cake and they don’t know a lot of the production techniques,” she said.
Once Davis learned some speedier techniques, her skill level grew.
“During that time, they played a tape at that store, and on the tape it said, ‘Go by and look at our world renowned cake decorator and her pastries,'” she said. “I would always chuckle, and the rest of the store employees would chuckle too as they went by, because I was an entry level cake decorator.
“But as I listened to that tape over and over and over, my confidence level increased.”
With improved skills and new confidence, Davis was ready to take the next step in her career.
“I decided I was going to go to the best bakery in town, which was Barbara’s Bake Shop in Des Moines,” she said. “And they hired me.”
Davis studied Bakery Production and Marketing magazines to get new ideas and learn from the experts in the field.
“There was usually a cake-decorating article written by Larry Powell.” she said. “I admired his work, and one day I called him to see if he taught classes. He said he was going to be teaching a class in St. Louis. So I drove to St. Louis.”
During the two-week class, Davis said she absorbed everything Powell taught.
“In cake-decorating lingo, his style was called ‘figure piping,’ which is like puffed up little figures made out of icing,” she said.
“After taking that class and going back to Barbara’s Bake Shop and applying everything I had learned, somebody in Seattle asked Larry Powell who he would recommend as a cake decorator for their bakery in Seattle, and he gave them my name,” she said. “So they called me and I thought I would try it out.”
Davis and her daughter left the Midwest and headed for Seattle.
While she was working at the bakery there, she had the opportunity to take some classes at the Fantastic Cake Box in Kent, Wash.
“My dream was to work at the Fantastic Cake Box-that’s where Larry Powell worked. They did a lot of creative things-there was no end to their creativity. Their motto was, ‘We fly cake all around the world.'”
Davis got her chance-the Fantastic Cake Box hired her, and there she worked on some of the most unusual projects of her career.
“The Fantastic Cake Box would just do anything,” she said.
She has pictures to prove it. One shows a 20-tier cake that resembles the Tower of Pisa.
“This was for a mall,” she said. “They had to have guy wires up at the top to hold the top steady, and they got someone in a cherry picker to serve it from way up there.”
Another photo shows a giant hamburger the bakery made for the King of Tonga.
“What he wanted when he came to the United States was a hamburger, so they made him one unbelievable hamburger-I think it was about 5 feet,” she said.
Next, Davis went back to Des Moines to help at a branch bakery opened by her former employer there. Then, another of her former managers invited her to come to Washington, D.C., to work in a shop he was opening there, Pastries by Randolph.
She worked at Randolph’s as a decorator until 1995 when she moved to Peabody to be near her elderly parents. Since then, she has worked as a decorator at Dillons’ North Newton store.
During her long career, Davis has worked on decorating projects for a wide range of high profile clients including Ted Kennedy, Bon Jovi, Doc Severinsen and Pope John Paul II.
She shows a photo of a cake she decorated for Chip Hanauer, a hydroplane racer.
“I just found out about this cake order in the morning when I got there,” she said. “I hadn’t a clue what a hydroplane looked like, and I had to figure out how to sculpt this thing.”
Davis’s work has been featured in many magazine articles.
“The magazine crew came to my house in Peabody and did six to 12 articles, and then they would use them for different issues of the magazine,” she said.
Davis enjoys sharing her knowledge and skills with others. She has done many demonstrations for national bakery conventions and international food shows. Last month, she conducted a workshop in decorating techniques at the Women’s Fair in Peabody.
Davis said much of the work she does now is more production decorating rather than the highly creative work she had done in some of her other positions, but she enjoys putting her talents to work on specialty jobs.
And when she finishes at the bakery, she spends the rest of the day at the massage therapy business she has built in Peabody. Davis attended massage therapy school when she lived in Washington, D.C., and massage has replaced cake decorating as her first love.
Some people might not see the relationship between cake decorating and massage therapy, but Davis said the two are complementary.
“Cake decorating has helped strengthen my hands,” she said. “When I was in massage school, a lot of the girls had to put their hands in ice water. But I didn’t have any problems with my hands-I’ve been squeezing decorating bags for so long!”